The Meet Of Tears: U.S. Olympic Trials

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2016 Olympic issue of SwimSwam Magazine.

“The most devastating experience of my life.”

That’s how Eric Shanteau, who knows something about devastation (he’s a cancer survivor, after all), has described the 2004 Olympic Trials, where he finished third in the 200 and 400 IM. He wasn’t alone in his misery. While it’s the dozens of qualifiers who understandably get all of the attention at every Olympic Trials, there’s a smaller subset of about 25 swimmers who carry a heavy burden: they, like Shanteau, miss qualifying for an event by one spot. It’s a lonely club – and not one that anybody wants to join. They know all too well why Trials is known to some as simply, “The Meet of Tears.”

Elite swimming is grueling enough as it is, but sometimes swimmers miss qualifying for the Olympics in ways that only the swim demons could design. Since 1984, there have been 31 instances of a swimmer falling short by less than one-tenth of a second. Four swimmers (Tara Kirk, Kristy Kowal, Ugur Tanner, Sarah Tolar) have missed by the slimmest margin possible: one one-hundredth of a second. And four swimmers other than Shanteau have been one spot away from qualifying for two events at the same Trials: Brendan Hansen, Hayley McGregory, Elizabeth Pelton, and Kim Small. McGregory is a special case. She just missed making the team in the 100 and 200 back in 2004, and then came back in 2008 and swam the same events, with the exact same outcome.

Perhaps cruelest of all, in 2008 both Kirk and Lara Jackson finished third – Kirk in the 100 breast and Jackson in the 50 free. A few days later, Jessica Hardy, who qualified in both events, was removed from the team after testing positive for a banned substance. But rather than elevate Kirk and Jackson to the team, USA Swimming officials filled the slot with swimmers who had already made the team in other events.  

As these examples show, even the most accomplished swimmers can fall one spot short. Consider the collection of water wonders who came oh so close at the 2012 Trials: Nathan Adrian (50 free), Natalie Coughlin (100 back), Jessica Hardy (100 breast), Katie Ledecky (400 free), and Dana Vollmer (100 free). Others who have missed by one place over the years include icons like Janet Evans, Cullen Jones, Ryan Lochte, Pablo Morales, and SWIMSWAM’s own Mel Stewart. He entered the 1996 Trials with the fastest qualifying time in the 200 fly, and possessed the American record, as well as a gold medal in the event from the Barcelona Olympics four years earlier. But in the finals, a Stanford swimmer named Ray Carey finished .23 ahead of him to snag second place and a trip to Atlanta. “Getting third at Olympic Trials hurts,” says Stewart. “It was crushing then, and still stings a bit today. I appreciate the experience, and making sense of the loss was character-building, but it doesn’t change the fact that I fought to make the Olympic Team and fell short.”

While every swimmer has a different way of dealing with the disappointment, the unifying theme is agony. Finishing one place out can lead to solitude – sometimes voluntary and sometimes not, as friends and family can offer moral support but they struggle with what condolences to offer. Better luck next time” simply doesn’t cut it when “next time” is four years away – and may never come. Even more toxic, some swimmers don’t want to be in the presence of those who have narrowly fallen short, fearing that the bad karma associated with such a finish could be contagious.

The reality is that life goes on whether one makes the Olympic team or not. And SWIMSWAM caught up with two celebrated swimmers who are all-too-familiar with Olympic Trials letdowns.

Michelle Griglione is the most decorated American swimmer never to have made an Olympic team. It was not for a lack of trying.

In 1984, at the tender age of 15, she narrowly missed making the team, finishing third in the 200 IM and fourth in the 400 IM. “It was a shock” to come so close, she says, but given her youth and her modest expectations entering Trials, “missing the team was not a major disappointment.” And she had every reason to believe that with more experience would come faster times and Olympic team slots. Indeed, later that summer she swam an IM time that would have won her a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. (Fun fact: Griglione’s coach was the fabled John Flanagan, SWIMSWAM’s 2013 Club Coach of the Year and one-time coach of current UC-Berkeley phenom Andrew Seliskar.)

Four years later, Griglione had accumulated that experience, both domestically (she was swimming for Stanford) and internationally (she won a silver medal at the 1986 world championship meet in Madrid). Naturally, she had very high hopes entering Olympic Trials. And she had an acute understanding of what was at stake, telling the Washington Post, “You’re either first or second in the next minute or else everything you worked the last five years for goes down the tubes. I can’t think of anything worse.”

Alas, the outcome was no better than four years earlier – and in some ways worse. She finished third twice – in the 200 fly (by .25) and the 400 IM (by 2.84 seconds). And she finished fourth in the 100 fly and 200 IM. She uses the same word as Shanteau to describe the feeling of not making the team: “devastating.”

She returned home to Alexandria, Virginia and laid low – “very low,” she says. “I basically didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to stay in my house and avoid any kind of reality.” Intensifying the pain, she says, was the amount of media attention devoted to the Olympics. “It was really hard to get away from it.” She was, of course, rooting for the American swimmers, but she confesses that she didn’t have the stomach to watch the swimming events on TV. (And to this day, she still hasn’t watched any of the video clips.)

Following Trials, she assumed her quest for the Olympics was over, but she returned to Stanford and immediately resumed swimming under the school’s new head coach, Richard Quick. Stanford promptly won the women’s NCAA title and Griglione won the 400 IM. “That took a lot of the sting out of not making the team,” she says today, “but not all of it.” While she says she did not distinguish herself in the pool during her two final years at Stanford, she decided upon graduating in 1991 to move home and train with the premier team in the Washington, DC area, Curl-Burke. Two of her friends from the training group – Roque Santos and Sergio Lopez – made the team (Lopez for Spain), as did four Stanford swimmers. Griglione did not – finishing fourth in both the 200 fly and 200 IM. “There’s no sugarcoating it – I was absolutely disappointed.”

Her only plan after that was graduate school at the University of Florida, to study chemical engineering. She wasn’t expecting to continue swimming, but she found that she was still fast and so she began working out with the team. She entered meets, and ultimately made the national team. “I was having a really good time,” she recalls. She was taking her swimming year-by-year, and when she found herself back in the Washington area for a job at the Goddard Space Center, she had quality pool time, and ultimately qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials. She won U.S. nationals in the 200 fly, and had the fastest qualifying time entering Trials. But she swam two seconds slower and placed fifth. She recalls going to the warm-down pool and taking a moment to ask herself, “Why? What am I doing?” Having just swum her last race, she realized there was no need for her to warm down. So she didn’t.

It was a small show of defiance for the highly-disciplined Griglione, who today shows remarkable equanimity when asked to reflect on her career. She says that while it was a “very painful” never to make an Olympic team, the hardest part of all of was that failing to ever qualify “became the focus of my career for other people. . . . But I didn’t want the Olympics to define my entire set of accomplishments. I knew that what I had accomplished was pretty special and that I was in rarefied air. Once I got out of it, I realized that the world I was in was uncommon, and that helped me get a better perspective what I had accomplished – and not focus on what I hadn’t.”

Asked if she would give any advice to swimmers who just miss making the team, she says, “you do need to keep it in perspective. I’ve often thought that I am very fortunate that that is the worst thing that’s happened to me. If that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to go through, I’m pretty lucky.”

If William Shakespeare ever wrote a play about swimming, one thing is certain: there would be a tragic character christened “Tarwater.” In the Bard’s telling, Tarwater would train alongside many of the world’s most accomplished swimmers. He would strive for years to make an Olympic team, only to miss by mere tenths of a second. And so his career – distinguished in so many other ways – would be tarred by what he didn’t do in the water: qualify for the Olympic team.

That’s (almost) the story of Davis Tarwater. As an upstart 20-year-old in at the 2004 Olympic Trials, he surprised many by finishing fourth in the 200 fly – just .45 behind his friend and University of Michigan training partner, Tom Malchow. The loss was “very hard,” Tarwater has said, adding that he didn’t respond the right way. “The lesson I learned was that I needed to be even more focused on the goal. I have to be even more singularly focused on the Olympics. And I think that kind of drove me a little bit crazy. It just didn’t make the journey very pleasant, very fun, or the process very thrilling.”

Over the next four years, qualifying for the Olympic team became Tarwater’s overarching obsession. He made the national team, he finished fourth at Worlds in 2005 and seemed likely to be a lock for Beijing. Once again swimming the 200 fly, his finals time was more than three seconds faster than it had been four years earlier. But it wasn’t fast enough, as Gil Stovall swam a lifetime best to snag second.

Failing to qualify, Tarwater said later, left him with “the most empty feeling in the world. . . . It felt like my life was over.” Eric Wunderlich, who finished third in the 100 breast at Trials in both 1992 and 1996, contacted him. “He told me, ‘do what you want to do and do what feels right, whether that’s travel or just decompressing. There’s no right answer.’ That helped me.”

The following year Tarwater enrolled in a graduate program at Oxford University and figured his swimming career was finished (though he did win the British version of NCAA’s in the 100 back). But as he was finishing his coursework the following year, he began re-thinking retirement and concluded, “I need to finish this story.” He was determined to change the script and change his motives. He contacted David Marsh of SwimMAC in the fall of 2010 and said he wanted to make a comeback. Marsh gave him a spot on the elite team, but knowing what had happened in 2008, he told Tarwater, “I want to make sure you’re not trying to exorcise demons from the past. You should be coming back because you want to and because you believe in the process and the sport.”

At Trials, Tarwater, in consultation with Marsh, was heavily focused on the 200 free – an event where six swimmers would qualify for the Olympic team (the additional swimmers would be used for the 4 x 200 relay). He advanced to the finals, only to finish . . . seventh, by a razor-thin margin of .14. Immediately afterwards, he said the feeling of disappointment was completely different than it had been four years earlier. “I knew I’d done everything I could do. And I understood that I had a future in life outside the sport.” He recalls walking out of the swim venue after his final race in the 100 fly and saying, “Thank you God for the opportunity to chase this dream.” And he posted a message on Facebook that made clear his swimming career was over: “I have finished the race. . . . On to the next dream.”

At dinner with his parents, he decided didn’t want to stick around for the end of the meet, so he changed his flight and flew back to Charlotte the next morning. With his swimming career finished, he figured he could let loose and while driving to his apartment in Charlotte he stopped at a Wendy’s, where he splurged on a double hamburger and cheese fries.

Sitting on his couch, chewing on his chow, Marsh called him and shared something unforgettable: Michael Phelps, who had finished first in the 200, had decided he wasn’t going to swim the event at the London Olympics. (While Phelps and Tarwater are friends and trained together for four years at the University of Michigan, the withdrawal was a total surprise.) It meant Tarwater was in the top six. He immediately started receiving calls and texts from people in Omaha – but he didn’t have confirmation that he was on the team. Twenty minutes later, Marsh called him back: “Davis, you’re an Olympian. You need to get to Omaha and accept this in person.” Tarwater immediately called his mom, who broke into tears upon hearing the news. He then booked the next available flight back to Omaha – this time, fittingly, in first class.

The next four weeks were a whirlwind of activity, which culminated with his Olympic swim in a preliminary heat of the 800 free relay. He and his teammates secured a top seed, and in the finals the USA team won by more than three seconds – which meant a gold medal for Tarwater. He loved being a part of the team and participating in the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the Olympics. But most fulfilling of all, he says today, “was the pursuit and the opportunity to chase an Olympic dream.” With the benefit of hindsight, he recognizes that, “If it’s only about the goal, there’s an emptiness. There’s so much more to offer than the ultimate goal. There’s so much more this sport has to offer than a single ultimate goal. It’s about relationships, personal growth and the process of chasing a dream. That is what is exhilarating about this sport and it took my whole career to realize that.”

That’s a useful life lesson for everyone to remember, but particularly for the cluster of swimmers who find themselves one spot away from Rio, with an acute understanding of just why Trials can be “The Meet of Tears.”

Matt Rees is a former White House speechwriter who has also worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. He is now president of Geonomica, a writing and consulting firm in McLean, Virginia. He hopes to one day swim the 50 yard free faster than he did at age 14.

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6 months ago

Ugur Taner was mentioned in the “missed by 0.01” club, but he was unique in another way. He already had an Olympic experience, swimming for Turkey in Barcelona, before changing his sport citizenship and being on the US National team from 1993 – 2000. He won a relay gold at the 1994 Rome World Championships and was on multiple Pan Pacific teams, including a Gold in the 200 Fly in 1997.

3 years ago

Tara Kirk and Lara Jackson in 2008 – wrong wrong wrong. 2 more victims of athletic enhancing drugs without ever touching them. Unacceptable.

3 years ago

Let’s not forget all the third place finishers to Stanford swimmers in 2004. Some Stanford swimmers were wearing a patch that Quick compared to having an extra cup of coffee when he was asked about them at ASCA. But they didn’t wear them at the Olympics….

VA Steve
3 years ago

Michelle Griglione still holds around 10 records in the Colonial Swim League (Virginia) nearly 40 years later. Extraordinary.

3 years ago

It was heartbreaking to see my good friend Byron Davis fall short of the olympics in his amazing career 🙁

6 months ago

He had one of the most electric trials swims ever in the 1996 Trials 100 Fly.

3 years ago

Jill Sterkel didn’t miss the 88 team though. She won a bronze medal in the 50 at the Seoul Olympics.

Matt Rees
Reply to  Aquajosh
3 years ago

Good catch. The text has been modified. The backstory is that Sterkel did take third at Trials, but she was given a spot on the U.S. team after another swimmer who had finished ahead of her was kicked off the team for failing a drug test. I’d missed this detail in my original research.

3 years ago

This is why I re-read “Gold in the Water” every 4 years.

3 years ago

This is a great article. It got me thinking of the swimmers who experienced something similar, in that they swam a time in prelims, which would have qualified them for the Olympic team had they been able to swim that time in finals. MaryAnne Graham qualified first in the prelims of the 100 back at the ’76 Trials, with a time that would have been third in finals. Unfortunately, she swam slower in finals and got fifth. Fortunately, Graham went on to make the team in the 200 back. Gary Schatz, also in ’76, swam a time in the 100 free prelims which would have been third in finals, had he swum it then. If he could have repeated his… Read more »